On Graduate Education in the Humanities, by a Graduate Student in the Humanities

By Lindsay Thomas

Well, spring is here, and this year it appears it has brought with its many pleasures a virtual bonanza of discussion on the current state of graduate education, particularly in the humanities. Perusing the higher education news of late, one gets the sense that the state of graduate education has never been worse: graduate programs are shrinking; graduate programs need to better prepare students for careers outside of academia (and here); graduate programs are, in fact, so systematically bankrupt that the very idea of graduate education itself is at risk; and, need I even mention it, graduate programs (in some disciplines) are useless. Most recently, Inside Higher Ed has featured the efforts of Russell Berman and five other Stanford professors to “radically” rethink the structure of humanities Ph.D. programs by decreasing the time to degree to four or five years, about half as long as it currently takes most graduate students to earn their Ph.D. Such restructuring would include providing summer support for graduate students and allow them to choose early on between an academic or nonacademic career plan and then prepare projects and dissertation work that would support that career choice. Harvard and the University of Minnesota are also beginning to rethink aspects of their graduate programs in order to reduce the time to degree, instituting more structured interactions between students and their dissertation committees and allowing for more flexible graduate curriculum.

The problems facing  graduate education in the humanities, however, cannot simply be boiled down to things like time to degree, the lack of clearly defined expectations or alternative career paths, or even student support. Certainly, much can and should be done on these fronts to improve graduate education in the humanities, and programs like UVA’s Praxis Program (profiled here on 4Humanities) are inspiring in this regard. However, improving graduate programs themselves is only half the battle, or really, even less than half. Reducing time to degree, the one factor consistently cited in the pieces above as evidence that graduate programs in the humanities are in dire straights, is not simply an issue of restructuring graduate programs, however radically. As Leonard Cassuto and Paul Jay point out, citing the Mellon initiative aimed at reducing time to degree through general external funding, “time to degree is not an independent variable, but is in fact determined by a complex set of entrenched institutional practices.” Throwing money, or new guidelines, or new curriculum, or new credentials, or whatever other graduate program reforms at this problem won’t make it go away.

In fact, what the pieces linked to above mostly fail to address are the greater systemic problems affecting the academic labor market as a whole. Graduate students, especially in the humanities, are not just students, endlessly toiling away in our foxholes/ivory towers (depending on which side of the “debate” you’re on) in our lurching quests for new knowledge. No; we are also instructors, and along with the ever-growing numbers of adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty, we constitute over 70% of the postsecondary instructional workforce nationwide. Graduate students and contingent faculty are paid much, much less than professors on the tenure-track, often to teach the same number of courses – or more – as full-time faculty. As Richard Grusin, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, points out in the comments to the Inside Higher Ed story, the piece “has nothing to say–nada, zip, niente–about the economic or labor issues constraining graduate education in the humanities.” Grusin emphasizes that “student support” at state institutions, unlike wealthier private universities like Stanford, means “5 years as an over-worked and under-paid TA,” which significantly increases the amount of time students take to finish their degrees. Furthermore, Cassuto and Jay remind us in this video clip that the “casualization” of the academic labor force – the elimination of tenure-track faculty positions in favor of adjunct or contingent positions – is a systemic problem that increases graduate student time to degree as well. More and more tenure-track positions are being replaced by part-time and adjunct positions, increasing the numbers of those seeking the dwindling numbers of tenure-track positions each year and decreasing graduate students’ chances of landing one.

However, all is not silent from the trade rags on this front; recently The Chronicle of Higher Education published this piece, entitled “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.” This article addresses an important issue, the number of people with advanced degrees receiving food stamps or other federal aid, many of whom are contingent faculty. This number has more than doubled since 2007, and for those with Ph.D.’s, it has more than tripled. This is serious and the article does a good job of pointing to the many cultural issues contributing to the lack of more widespread discussion about this topic. However (and perhaps one of the 895 commenters on this article has already brought this up), in its emphasis on the struggles of specific individuals to make it as contingent faculty, the piece only gestures to the larger issues, like the casualization of the academic labor force, contributing to (creating?) this problem. In many ways, the article reads more like a piece about cognitive dissonance than one about the financial and structural problems facing those with Ph.D.’s today, as if the subtitle should read, “You’ll never guess! Turns out getting your Ph.D. makes you poor!” This sidesteps the real issue: as Matthew Williams, cofounder and vice president of the New Faculty Majority says in the piece, underemployed faculty members are “the dirty little secret of higher education.” Receiving federal aid, in other words, is not the dirty little secret – it’s the fact that universities and colleges so systematically exploit their workers.

What, then, is to be done? I am sorry to say I don’t have any easy answers for this one (or really, any answers). Streamlining graduate programs to reduce time to degree only addresses part of the problem. And, might I add, it addresses the part of the problem that most benefits universities and colleges, not necessarily graduate students looking for jobs in academia. Restructuring higher education to fit Amazon’s model, as this other Chronicle piece about online platforms for buying and selling college courses suggests, is also not going to fix much. It will not in fact “provide college professors with the opportunity to seize the means of production;” it will only further corporatize higher education (and here). On the other hand, groups like the New Faculty Majority are certainly a much-needed step in the right direction, and even our modest project here at 4Humanities can do some good to start the conversation going. As a graduate student in the humanities, I don’t know what my prospects for a tenure-track job in academia will be when I go on the job market in the next couple of years; probably not stellar. Along with working on my own research agenda, I’m certainly trying to cultivate skills (like programming and collaborative project-building and research) that have some kind of direct applicability to alt-ac careers and careers outside academia. However, I also know this problem isn’t just my problem, nor is it specific to my graduate program or other graduate programs. It’s systemic, and we need to take steps toward solving it systemically.